Christmas is a big deal. So much so that many feel quite pressured to have a “perfect Christmas”? The tree decorated just right, the right food and desserts, the proper music playing in the background, the vacation plans laid out, the cards sent, matching bow and wrapping on the gifts, the best plates for the turkey… if we miss just one thing, we feel, Christmas could be ruined!
What struck me as I re-read the Christmas story was that there seems to be a lot of imperfections in the first Christmas! When you think about it, almost everything, to our human way of thinking, was out of place. On the face of it, the first Christmas is quite a mess!
Consider this: We live in a world where we can call or text someone and get a response within seconds. If someone tells you there going to do something, you can usually bet it’s going to happen at least within their lifetime!
But what how does God do it? He sends the message of salvation through Jesus Christ through prophecies – over thousands of years. He hints about it to Eve as she and Adam are cast out of the Garden (Gen 3:15). He tells Abraham that through his descendants all nations would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Later, He shares a bit more with Moses and the people of Israel, telling them about the coming of a great prophet (Deut 18:15-22). Then, almost 700 years later, God gives a little more information to the prophet Jeremiah saying that the Saviour would be a descendant of King David (Jer 23:5). Around this same time He tells a different prophet, Isaiah, that He would be born of a virgin (Isa 7:14). And then tells still a different prophet, Micah, that he would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2). Hundreds of prophecies spanning thousands of years.
That kind of timeline certainly doesn’t make sense to us. It’d be like having one of my daughters send out invitations to their 100th birthday. It’s strange. God took hundreds and hundreds of years to reveal His plan.
God’s timing for when Jesus would come doesn’t make sense. God takes thousands of years to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus, but then chooses a pre-scientific time, before humanity has even figured out how to take a picture or send messages a long distance without using a horse! Why come 2000 years ago? Why not now? We have digital cameras and the internet!
Then, right before Jesus is to be born, God decides to send a forerunner to go ahead of him, a man named John the Baptist. John will be Jesus’ cousin and given the job to announce the coming of the Messiah to the world. And how does God bring John into the world? By appearing to an old man named Zachariah, who doesn’t believe him because his wife is very old and can’t have babies, and is then struck dumb for the rest of the pregnancy. (Luke 1:5-25) Is that really the best guy God could have picked to be the father of the last prophet before Jesus?
Let’s keep going. God sends the angel Gabriel to Nazareth – not Bethlehem where Jesus is supposed to be born, but to Nazareth – to talk to a young virgin named Mary who was engaged to a man named Joseph. Here, God’s plan leads to all kinds of trouble! Mary is obviously confused about how this is going to happen, and has to tell Joseph. Then Joseph almost dumps Mary because he thinks she cheated on him. God actually has to intervene in a dream to keep Joseph from divorcing her! (Luke 1:26-38) Why would God do that? That seems like too much drama.
So far we have, by our human estimation, the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong people! But let’s keep going.
In order to get Mary to the right place, so Jesus can be born in Bethlehem like He’s supposed to, God has Caesar Augustus command a registry and taxation of the entire Roman world. 85 million people[i] are inconvenienced and have to pay extra taxes so God can get three people from Nazareth to Bethlehem. (Luke 2:1-5) That seems kind of poorly planned… or at least unnecessarily complicated.
And then, it seems, almost as soon as they get to Bethlehem, Mary goes into labour (Luke 2:6-7) Is this how God ordained His Son, Immanuel, the Messiah, the Christ, to be born? If we had planned this birth, we would have the best medical technology available, all the best doctors and midwives to make sure everything goes well. Prince George got the royal obstetrician, who was assisted by three other doctors including the Queen’s personal physician. I’ve got nothing against Baby Prince George, but this is Jesus! We would have sent for the royal trumpets, golden diapers and a scarlet onesie. This is the most important birth in the history of the world!
Nope… Jesus is born in a barn. The God of the universe, the one who invented stars, oceans, gravity, love, and joy, was born in a barn. The Creator lowered Himself to become one of His own creatures. The One whom Angels worship came not as a grown man, but as a helpless baby. Human infants are, perhaps, the most helpless creature on earth.[ii] And there was no fanfare. Jesus came in obscurity, wrapped in strips of used cloth and laid in an animal’s feeding trough, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the smell of cattle.
God has, literally, been prophesying about this forever! This would be the beginning of the culmination of the salvation of the world, the putting right of all sin and death, the greatest life to be lived. And he’s laid in a manger.
The one thing that seems to go right is when God pulls back the curtain separating heaven and earth, and has a host of radiant, shining angels shout “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-20) What a show that must have been! A multitude of glorious angels praising God!
And who gets that peak into heaven, to see that sight that almost no one has ever seen? Who gets to hear the great, heavenly declaration of “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”? A small group of socially rejected shepherds with reputations for being dishonest and perpetually unclean according to the law. Outcasts and sinners – not to be trusted as messengers of any kind.
And to top it off, the only people of influence who had actually figured out the importance of the birth of Jesus were a group of gentile, pagan, astrologers who came from hundreds of miles away, were two years late, went to the wrong city first, and left without telling hardly anyone.
Oh, but the person they did tell was crazy, king Herod who was so jealous of a contender to the throne that he had all the boys aged two years and under slaughtered in an attempt to kill Jesus. The three gifts they gave to Jesus were almost immediately pawned so that Joseph could afford to flee to Egypt.
The entire story of Christmas seems to be an absolute mess! It’s not the “perfect Christmas” at all! The way God orchestrates Christmas, when we look at it from a human perspective, is quite a mystery.
We Love a Good Mystery
I actually like mysteries. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I love Sherlock Holmes. I just finished reading a compendium of all the stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about him. I’m not the only one too – a lot of people enjoyed reading it. Everyone, it seems, except Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. He’s famously known for not wanting to write as many stories as he did. He killed Sherlock off once, and retired him a couple times after that.
He even tried to making his price so high that it would discourage the publishers from asking for any more – but they paid it and he became one of the best-paid authors of his time.
For me, one of the best things about reading Sherlock Holmes is the way that Sherlock solves the mystery in such a dramatic fashion. In most of the stories Sherlock admits that he solved the crime within the first few minutes of hearing about it, but just wanted to check out a few things to be sure. He keeps everyone in suspense – even, and maybe especially, Watson – so he can do a theatrical reveal, or even better, have the criminal reveal themselves.
But the story doesn’t end after the bad guy has been caught – and this is, I think, Conan Doyle’s genius – instead we turn the page and find Holmes and Watson sitting together as Sherlock explains every decision, every movement, and every clue to the smallest detail. I think that’s what I like best. The mystery was fun, but my favourite part is the explanation of the clues that I, and everyone else, missed along the way.
Another mystery novelist, PD James, once said,
“In turbulent times people turn to detective stories for reassurance as much as entertainment ‘because they do affirm the intelligibility of the universe, the moral norm, the sanctity of life. It seems to me that the more we live in a society in which we feel our problems — be they international problems of war and peace, racial problems, problems of drugs, problems of violence — to be literally beyond our ability to solve, the more reassuring it is to read a popular form of fiction which itself has a problem at the heart of it. One which the reader knows will be solved by the end of the book.’”[iii]
PD James was a Christian. She wrote mysteries because she believed in rational, ordered, moral universe. She used detective stories to “show human nature, human sinfulness, and the endurance of a moral code that wasn’t invented by humanity, but rather given to us.”[iv]
God is Mysterious and Rational
I couldn’t agree more – and I think that’s why people love a good mystery – because they remind us of God. We want to believe that the universe in which we live was intelligently designed, well organized, and that all the pieces fit together. We may not feel like it all the time, but knowing that no matter how bad things look, how unintelligible and messed up the clues that are before us, there is Someone that can look at them all, see them for what they are, and put them in order.
And I think that helps us understand the Christmas story. On the surface, it seems jumbled and messy – a pile of clues that even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t riddle out. But as we look deeper into God’s word, past the surface events, and God begins to explain to us what He what He’s been doing all along – we begin to see the intricate story being woven – with a perfection of detail, with clockwork precision, that astonishes us.
A Christian understands this. In fact, it’s our baseline for understanding everything. Yes, God is mysterious, but He is also moral, ordered, and reasonable. He is not like the pagan god’s that simply do things out of spite or boredom. He never experiments. He never guesses. He never does something and wonders what will happen next. He is absolutely in control and fully aware of every cause and effect in the universe.
He’s not just a very smart person who can react quickly to what is going on– no, He is orchestrating every action in this world, from the smallest detail to the largest – from the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons of atoms, to the governments that rule the largest nations on the planet – God orchestrates them all in an orderly, constant, rational, moral and precise way.
Mysterious to Us
That being said, though God knows everything, we certainly don’t – do we? No, for us, there are many mysteries in this world. I read a great quote from Deitrich Bonhoeffer this week where he said that for people, “mystery remains a mystery. It withdraws from our grasp.”
What does that mean? It means that for humans, everything we think we know only reveals more things that we don’t. Why? Bonhoeffer continues,
“[Because] mystery… does not mean simply not knowing something. The greatest mystery is not the most distant star; on the contrary, the closer something comes to us and the better we know it, then the more mysterious it becomes for us. The greatest mystery to us is not the most distant person, but the one next to us. The mystery of other people is not reduced by getting to know more and more about them. Rather, in their closeness they become more and more mysterious.” [vii]
That’s how it works on our side of the universe, doesn’t it? God understands the big things and the small, the causes and the effects, and for Him it all makes sense. We, however, as the more study anything, the more mysteries open up to us! It is only those who have a surface knowledge of something that believe they have it all figured out. The ones who really study something, for years and years, and really delve deeply into understanding it – astronomy, biology, physics, psychology, cooking, art, or even their own family and friends – as they peel back the onion layers, they discover more wonders and delights and questions than they had when they started. The more they learn the more they realize they don’t know.
God created this world that way on purpose. He designed a place where powerfully intricate, mysteries abound. There are forces in this world like love and fear that can be spoken in a single word, and understood by almost anyone, and yet are beyond explanation even by the greatest scientists and poets.
That makes up part of the beauty, complexity and frustration of living in this world. And it is perfectly illustrated in the beauty, complexity, and frustration, of the Christmas story and the Gospel of Jesus.
An Inside Out Onion
The gospel of Jesus is simple enough for even a small child to understand, but works like an inside-out onion – the more layers you peel back from the gospel and the person of Jesus Christ, the bigger the onion is on the inside. Once you think you understand a layer, you peel back the next, and there are more intricacies, more meaning, more depth, more substance, and more mysteries than you ever could have imagined.[v]
Paul describes the mystery of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25:
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
The religious Jews demanded that Jesus prove everything to them by signs and wonders, but even when He did they didn’t believe in Him. The intellectual Greeks wanted everything to be proven by facts, logic and coherent, human arguments. But the way that Jesus revealed Himself, the way He lived, God’s whole of salvation, was offensive to the religious people (who want to earn their way to heaven) and nonsensical to the intellectuals.
And their inability to grasp what God was doing – rather than trying meeting their expectations – was a “stumbling block” that kept them from being able to accept the truth.
This is why Christian theologians emphasize the need for God to open our hearts and minds before we can be saved. Because without His Spirit revealing Himself to us, the Gospel doesn’t make sense. We can’t think God’s thoughts unless God has opened our mind.
A few verses later in 1 Corinthians 2:7-16. Paul says:
“But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”
Do you see that? We must be given the Spirit of God to understand what is going on with God’s plan. The religious experts didn’t accept what God was doing because they wanted to earn their way to heaven through things like good deeds and religious ceremony, the great intellectuals didn’t like it either because there were too many unexplained mysteries. No, it is only the ones to whom the Spirit of God is revealed who get this.
That’s why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom.[vi] That’s why we must turn to Him for understanding. That’s why we pray to God to reveal Himself to our lost friends and neighbours – because no matter what, they can’t understand it unless He opens their eyes. That’s why, when we are in crisis – suffering with pain, anxiety, or depression, we are told to cry out to God; because human answers are not good enough. We need to hear from the One who knows what’s going on behind the curtain, the Designer, who knows the beginning and the end, who holds it all together, in whom we can put our hope, faith and trust.
Things like love, fear, hate, joy, salvation, mercy, grace, peace – and the deep questions like “why am I here?”, “what is my purpose?”, “why does everything exist?”, “what is the meaning of my life?” are not discerned by human wisdom. Human wisdom falls utterly short to explain the things that really matter – and even when we get a taste of truth, we peal back the onion and it’s only bigger and more mysterious on the inside.
No, these things are only discerned by God – and so it is in Him that we must put our faith and trust.
So, as we celebrate the advent season, and tell the story of Christmas, let us embrace the paradox and the mystery of what is happening, and let it grow our faith and trust in God.
- Through prophecies God weaves the Gospel of Jesus into the very fabric of reality, over all millennia, from the first people to today.
- God moves the hand of Ceasar to show He is in coontrol of everything, even pagan rulers.
- Jesus shows us what it means to be meek by being born in humility.
- God opens the skies and has angels sing to outcasts and rebels because they needed the good news as much as anyone, and represent all of us outcasts and rebels who need Him too.
- God speaks to gentile foreigners, like us, in a way they can understand, inviting people who didn’t belong, who would never have gotten an invitation, to be a part of the greatest story ever told, and witness the salvation of the world.
And as we remember the mystery of Christmas, let us remember the mystery of why Jesus came – that great absurdity – the plan that we would never have come up with in a million years. God sent His one and only Son, the perfection of glory, to be humiliated and be declared guilty by a condemned world, and murdered by His own creation, exchanging His own body for ours, taking the wrath of God for us.
“God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon Himself our punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us. God stands in for godlessness, love stands in for hate, the Holy One for the sinner.”[vii]
And He invites us to be forgiven, to believe in Him, to trust Him, and to be changed by Him.
[v] Borrowed illustration from “The Last Battle” by CS Lewis
[vi] Prov 1:7; 9:10
[vii] (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger, Pg 26)